Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson has written to Boris Johnson warning that public health may be harmed for a generation if leisure facilities continue to stay closed following the coronavirus pandemic.
The intervention, in her role as chair of the leisure industry body Ukactive, comes as a backlash continues to grow against the government’s decision not to include gyms and indoor leisure facilities in the relaxing of lockdown measures in England scheduled for 4 July. Grey-Thompson’s words were echoed by the head of UK Coaching, Mark Gannon, who argued delays will have an immediate impact on health outcomes for the most disadvantaged in society.
Calling for a “swift resolution” to the problem, Grey-Thompson claimed as many as 100,000 jobs are at risk with leisure chains and council-run facilities under the financial strain of three months of inactivity.
“I’m writing to express my disappointment at the decision to delay the reopening of indoor facilities within the sport and physical activity sector, and to seek reassurances for a swift resolution,” she wrote. “My disappointment and frustration is shared today by millions across the country who own, work at, and use these community assets.
“The consequences of further delays and ambiguity are stark. More than 2,800 facilities are at risk of closure and more than 100,000 jobs are at risk, more than half of the workforce in fitness and leisure facilities. To lose these facilities in the midst of the biggest health crisis could set back public health for a generation. The loss would be catastrophic to communities.”
In remarks consistent with many other English sporting officials, Grey-Thompson claimed Ukactive had been working closely with government to devise protocols for the safe reopening of facilities with the expectation of a 4 July restart, only to find the sector missing from the prime minister’s statement with no warning given. The culture secretary, Oliver Dowden, later tweeted that gyms might reopen in the middle of July, but the Guardian understands further details have not been forthcoming.
“[Our] omission from the reopening plans yesterday has shocked the whole sector,” Gray-Thompson wrote. “The message from the secretary of state stating an aspiration to reopen indoor gyms and leisure facilities in mid-July is something I personally welcome, but regrettably many in the sector have lost faith in the process.”
Gannon, whose organisation represents the UK’s 3 million coaches, warned of a loss of volunteers and those employed in the leisure sector with each passing week facilities remain closed. “The longer we delay, the longer it will take for us to come back,” he said. “It won’t necessarily be a V-shaped return. Then the challenge will be to make sport and physical activity available to those who would not otherwise access it. If we’re under pressure to [support] mainstream activity. that’s going to be difficult.”
The latest Active Lives survey, conducted by Sport England before the pandemic, found people in lower socio-economic groups were 18% less likely to be active than the most affluent. These numbers have been flat since 2015 , as have figures for BAME participation, which lag behind those of white people. BAME people, however, are over-represented when it comes to using public leisure facilities, making up 25% of usage from 14% of the population.
“We have communities that are struggling and they will be hit hardest by this,” Gannon said. “We want to make physical sport accessible to all. It’s something we haven’t been able to do to date, but it’s an aspiration and one the government has been backing us on. But between the words they’ve given to the sector and their actions yesterday, there appears to be a disconnect.”